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It’s obvious to everyone who’s watched an NFL game that football is an incredibly violent sport. Yet somehow it was not until the past few years that the long-term physical consequences of being an NFL player became well known. On Monday former Wisconsin Badger great Chris Borland decided the risk of significant brain damage was too great and announced his retirement from the NFL.
On the surface the news of Borland’s retirement is shocking. Borland is only 24 years old and was in line to be a starting linebacker for the 49ers after the recent retirement of Patrick Willis. By walking away from football Borland is surrendering millions of dollars and the prestige of playing for an iconic NFL franchise. This is a once-in-a-lifeitme opportunity, but when you think about why Borland retired his decision actually makes a lot of sense. This is not a good sign for the NFL.
Borland’s rational for retiring is very simple. He told ESPN’s Outside the Lines that “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.” It’s hard to argue with this assessment.
An ongoing study found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in 76 of 79 brains belonging to former (and deceased) NFL players. CTE is a degenerative brain disease whose only known cause is repeated brain trauma, the kind you would experience playing linebacker in the NFL. It’s symptoms include, but are not limited to, depression, memory loss, progressive dementia, and impulse control problems. When you pair these facts with the post-NFL testimonies of former players such as Tony Dorsett you wonder if more players are going to follow Borland’s lead.
Is the fame and fortune you gain from playing the in the NFL worth the risk of living with the effects of severe brain damage during your twilight years? The fact the NFL exists proves the answer is “yes,” though it’s hard to believe Borland is the only player who thinks otherwise. Whether Borland’s retirement is a concerning portent for the NFL is to be seen, but looking ahead it’s unlikely he’ll be the only player to walk away from football because the risk of playing seems greater than the reward.